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Hockey Night in Canada analyst Craig Simpson, a former Oilers ace, was on Oilers Now and set out his formula for an Oilers turn-around in 2019-20, including his notion that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might have to be moved to get a top player in return.
A solid veteran Top 4 d-man. “I think first and foremost you need some stability on the back end. You’re not going to be able to, I don’t think, bring in a Top 2 d-pairing.” Simpson suggested a Ron Hainsey-like player “that has some experience and calmness back there… You need a calming influence when chaos erupts, a guy who can make either one good stick play to turn a puck over, and at least get the puck back out and breathe again a little bit.”
A fast d-man. “A speed factor on the back end. You’ve got to be able to get a little quicker. You have got to be able to make plays at a faster pace.”
A strong back-up goalie, possibly off the waiver wire. Simpson hopes the Oilers can get a back-up like Curtis McElhinney in Carolina, who has a .912 save percentage in 32 games.
At forward, Simpson is looking for help from Bakersfield. “You hope that the development this year in the American League where the team has had some success, they’ve had some traction, they’ve had some offence. How many times did we say in the last few years, ‘Who would you ever bring up down there? Nobody is even scoring down there.’” This year Tyler Benson has been healthy and is scoring, Simpson said. “I look around the league at good teams and you have to trust that some of these American Hockey League players can come up and fill roles and an Entry Level Contracts and play minutes. So if they’re going to fill roles, they’re not always going to score, but they’ve got to have some speed, they’ve got to be able to push the pace. In fairness to Kyle Brodziak, there weren’t a lot of options in terms of who you going to fit in at a third or fourth line centre, but clearly you’re lacking that energy and speed. You need those guys to be able to play with pace so that your game doesn’t slow down, you don’t get hemmed in.”
Trading RNH? “If you are looking to make a deal, I’ve heard you talking about Nugent-Hopkins having a career year and the things he does bring,” Simpson said to host Bob Stauffer. “If you can secure a Derek Ryan-type player as that third line centre or a speedier guy in the fourth line, I would not be surprised if the new GM at some point has to entertain a package that includes Nugent-Hopkins to get better in other areas.” Simpson did not spell out what other areas he meant, but presumably he’s thinking of a top d-man or winger coming back.
Simpson nailed it on almost every single point here, though it will take some prize to make moving RNH a sound idea. But Simpson did a better job than former NHL executive Brian Burke or Stauffer himself has done in spelling out solutions for the upcoming roster.
A solid veteran d-man would be useful, though one hopes that calm and solid veteran player might be Andrej Sekera. He has looked OK in his return this year. His agility has come back to some extent. He’s not been asked to play hard minutes, though, and he’s not getting any younger. But Hainsey is 38. If I was betting, I’d bet that Sekera can fill the Hainsey role for next year on the Oilers, so this job can be filled internally. Perhaps Simpson would disagree with this notion, though, as he did not mention Sekera as the logical candidate for this role, as I’m now doing.
As for a speedy young d-man, the Oilers have a fantastic candidate in Caleb Jones. Jones has now played two seasons in the American Hockey League. He already appeared ready for third-pairing NHL duty when he was called up mid-winter. With Jones on the third-pairing, the Oil’s puck-moving and speed will get a boost. Also in the running here will be Ethan Bear and Joel Persson from Sweden. Evan Bouchard is slated to go to the AHL to start the year, even as he’s ripping it up in the OHL playoffs right now with 10 points in four games.
Simpson is right that NHL teams (and especially capped out teams like the Oilers) must count on AHL talent to step up. This should be the expectation with Jones, but it’s also the case that one or two of Tyler Benson, Kailer Yamamoto, Cooper Marody, Joe Gambardella, Josh Currie and Patrick Russell (not to mention Jesse Puljujarvi) should be expected to crack the roster. None of those players are super fast, but with their outstanding vision, Benson and Marody at least plays fast. They can make move that puck quick and true with strong passing plays.
There’s a lot of talk about Benson needing to start next year in the AHL, but the brutal truth is that if a player is going to make it as a first or second line NHLer, he doesn’t need two or three AHL seasons to make it there. He needs to excel in major junior or for one year in the AHL, then step up into the NHL. Of the top 180 point-scoring forwards in the NHL, 62 played not one AHL game. Another 44 played fewer than 50 AHL games. Just 31 of them played 100 games in the minors. If Benson has got the talent, it does not need two or three AHL seasons to show. And two or three AHL seasons won’t miraculously turn a player who lacks top line talent into one who is capable of playing in such a role. Benson is 21 now, not 18 or 19. He’l be plenty ripe by next September, especially after an AHL playoff run.
As Simpson suggests, Brodziak is not the answer on the fourth line and should not be counted on next year. OHL centre Ryan McLeod is a fine prospect, and he’s got thrilling speed, but he’s likely going to need a year or two in the AHL before he’s ready to help the Oilers.
Trading RNH? A lot of fans are going to choke on that notion. RNH is a fan favourite, he can play centre, and he’s had a career year with 67 points in 80 games. As Simpson suggests, to even think about this notion Edmonton would first have to get a third-line centre to fill in for RNH — and that’s not such an easy thing to do. But it is the case that RNH’s value is sky high right now, even as his even strength scoring is only good, not great. He’s never shown the ability to drive a line but is an outstanding complementary player. I don’t see trading RNH for a winger. Edmonton needs all the scoring it can get. But if Edmonton can package him with a d-man like Matt Benning or Kris Russell to pull in a strong-to-outstanding d-man, and one who can run a power play, Edmonton needs to think about that. Make sense?
The only thing Simpson left out is the need to figure out some resolution to the Milan Lucic situation. There’s a chance Edmonton will have Lucic on its fourth line again. He certainly can’t play the third most minutes of any full-time Oilers winger, as he did this year, if the Oilers are to succeed. But having Lucic on a fourth line means a slow fourth line and one that might not be strong defensively, as Lucic isn’t a strong defender at this point. I’d prefer a new GM find some way to move out the player.